MOJAVE, Calif. (AP) — Ignoring a warning to abort the
flight, a test pilot took a stubby-looking rocket plane on a
corkscrewing, white-knuckle ride past the edge of the atmosphere
yesterday, completing the first stage of a quest to win a $10
million prize.

Beth Dykstra
Astronaut Mike Melvill celebrates on SpaceShipOne yesterday after landing as the Mojave Aerospace Ventures Team attempts to win the Ansari X Prize. (AP PHOTO)

As spectators and controllers nervously watched from the ground,
SpaceShipOne rolled dozens of times as it hurtled toward space at
nearly three times the speed of sound. It reached an altitude of 64
miles over the Mojave Desert.

Spaceship designer Burt Rutan said he asked pilot Michael
Melvill to shut down the engine, but Melvill kept going until he
reached the altitude specified under the rules for the Ansari X
Prize, a bounty offered to the first privately built, manned rocket
ship to fly in space twice in a span of two weeks.

“I did a victory roll at the top,” Melvill joked
from atop the spaceship after it glided safely to a landing.

The problem was being analyzed by the spacecraft’s
builders, who must decide whether to proceed with another flight
Monday in order to win the X Prize.

But Rutan and Melvill were confident the flight would go on as
planned. Rutan said rolling occurred during flight simulations, and
it was not a complete surprise when it happened on yesterday.

“I’ve looked at it, and I think we just change out
the engine and fill it with gas and let it go,” Melvill
said.

The test pilot said he may have caused the rolling himself.

“You know, you’re extremely busy at that
point,” he said. “Your feet and your hands and your
eyes and everything is working about as fast as you can work them,
and probably I stepped on something too quickly and caused the
roll.”

SpaceShipOne, with Melvill at the controls, made history in June
when it became the first private, manned craft to reach space.

The Ansari X Prize will go to the first craft to safely complete
two flights to an altitude of 328,000 feet, or 62 miles —
generally considered to be the point where the Earth’s
atmosphere ends and space begins — in a 14-day span.

The St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation is offering the bounty in
hopes of inspiring an era of space tourism in which spaceflight is
not just the domain of government agencies such as NASA.

Rutan, with more than $20 million from Microsoft billionaire
Paul Allen, secretly developed SpaceShipOne and is well ahead of
two dozen teams building X Prize contenders around the world.

During its 81-minute flight, SpaceShipOne climbed to 337,500
feet — nearly 10,000 feet above its target, said Gregg
Maryniak, executive director of the X Prize Foundation. The craft
made more than two dozen unexpected rolls as the fat fuselage and
spindly white wings shot skyward.

Rutan said controllers asked Melvill to shut the engine down
early because of the rolling, but Melvill kept going until he was
certain he would reach the target altitude.

“We actually were asking him to go ahead and abort, to
shut it off to where he wouldn’t have gone the (62 miles). He
stayed in there just for a handful of seconds more,” Rutan
said.

Melvill said he did shut down the engine 11 seconds earlier than
planned after determining the craft would reach its target.

The mission began when a specially designed jet with the ship
under its belly took off from the desert north of Los Angeles. At
47,000 feet, SpaceShipOne was released, and Melvill fired its
rocket motor and pointed the nose toward space.

A crowd of VIPs watched from below the airport control tower.
The mission was televised live.

The Ansari X Prize was modeled on the $25,000 prize that Charles
Lindbergh won in his Spirit of St. Louis for the first solo New
York-to-Paris flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

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